17th-century Frechen Bartmann Jugs and ‘Witch’ Bottles

2 minute read

In the 1920s the MAA received the donation of two distinctive early modern stoneware pots as part of a larger bequest of Cambridge based scholar, archaeologist and collector William Ridgeway. These were examples of Bartmann jugs, also known as Bartmannkrüge or Bellarmine jugs, a type of stoneware vessel that originated in the production centres of Cologne, Raeran, and Frechen of the Rhineland in the mid- to late-16th century. They are characterised by their unique shape and decoration, which often featured grotesque faces and applied medallions and symbols.

Figures 1 and 2. Bartmann jugs decorated with a medallion enclosing a rosette. Burwell, Cambridgeshire. 17th Century. Collected and donated by William Ridgeway. MAA 1927.1225 A and 1927.1225 B.

However, it is the production by the workshops in the town of Frechen, Germany, that these vessels are most synonymous with. They were primarily used for storing and transporting liquids such as beer, wine, vinegar and even mercury. But in the case of the MAA examples these vessels had been reused as ‘witch bottles’, serving as objects for ritual protection or as the containers of a ‘prepared cure’ against witchcraft. They are now subject to a major new study, ‘Witch bottles’ concealed and revealed | MOLA, funded by the Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC).

The name ‘Bartmann’ comes from the German word for ‘bearded man’,  which refers to the facial decoration on the jugs. The faces are often depicted with exaggerated features such as bushy eyebrows, long beards, and large noses, designs likely influenced by the popular woodcuts, heraldry, and engravings of the time, which often featured similar images.

Bartmann jugs were also decorated with various medallions, symbols, and inscriptions. Many jugs featured the coat of arms of European Royalty and Duchies, cities such as Cologne and Amsterdam, or the initials of a person or merchant that commissioned them. Others had more generic symbols such as grapevines, hunting scenes, or religious iconography. The inscriptions often included the date of production, the name of the potter, and sometimes even humorous or satirical comments.

One of the most notable features of Bartmann jugs is their salt-glaze finish. This type of glaze is produced by throwing salt into the kiln during firing, which creates a distinctive orange-peel texture and a glossy sheen. The salt also reacts with the clay and iron oxide in the decoration, producing a dark, mottled effect that is characteristic of Bartmann jugs.

Bartmann jugs were produced in large quantities in Frechen and were exported all over Europe, particularly to England and the Netherlands, whose shippers were responsible for their distribution once they reached the ports of Nijmegen, Rotterdam or Dordrecht at the end of the Rhine and its tributaries. They are found on shipwrecks across the globe and were particularly popular in England – where the name Bellarmine (after the Italian Cardinal Bellarmine) was often applied. They served as drinking vessels in domestic and alehouse settings, and are even referenced in English plays of the 17th century. The jugs are now valued as collector’s items, and many examples can be found in museums and private collections around the world. Such is the legacy of the term Bellarmine in the Anglophone context that many museum collections continue to reference these vessels as ‘Bellarmines’.

Today, Frechen Bartmann jugs are still produced by a small number of potters in Frechen and the surrounding area. These modern jugs are made using traditional techniques and designs, and are highly valued by collectors and enthusiasts. In addition, many museums in Frechen and the surrounding region have exhibitions and events dedicated to the history and production of Bartmann jugs.

Frechen Bartmann jugs are a fascinating example of the rich history and culture of ceramics in Germany and of stoneware production in the Rhineland that stretches over a millennia. Their unique shape, decoration, and salt-glaze finish make them distinctive and highly collectible, and their continued production and popularity demonstrate their enduring appeal. Whether you are a collector, historian, or simply an admirer of ceramics, Frechen Bartmann jugs are sure to capture your imagination.


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